What does it take to raise happy children? This, in a world where the pressures of adulthood seem increasingly to infiltrate the experience of the child, along with materialism, competitiveness, stress and expectation to succeed at all costs.
Well, according to a recent UNICEF study of child well-being, Dutch children are the happiest in the world; and having entered the realm of parenting 22 years ago (in North America for the first years, and then in South Africa), I’m very curious to see what factors contribute to this assessment.
And to equip me with greater insight, I’ve just read the new book, The Happiest Kids in the World, by Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, two moms and writers, who went from America and England respectively to live with their Dutch husbands in Holland and raise their families there.
I met Michele at a Sea Point cafe for pizza and coffee, while she was in South Africa to visit friends and promote the book, and she strolled in with wet hair, having just come from a swim, and looking suitably relaxed.
One of the points they raise early in the book is the work/life balance in Holland, where people (especially moms) often opt to work a 29-hour week, freeing up more family time and opportunity to replenish amid a busy life.
They point to the fact that women’s body image doesn’t subscribe to Western standards of perfection, with the commensurate stress, and that there is generally a more down-to-earth approach to practically everything, which must filter through to their children’s consciousness through example.
I told her that my impression, from what I read, is that the Dutch tend to regard parenthood with a somewhat taciturn approach, bringing stoicism and equanimity into the relationship with partners and children, with a strong emphasis on spending time together on outings and projects, such as the garden allotments families receive.
Michele and Rina use their own lives and experiences and observations as an anecdotal background to the general parenting philosophies they encountered, and both had to recondition themselves in terms of perception of safety, schooling and interactive family gatherings. It was a real paradigm shift. Giving birth at home is also much more the norm, and a maternity nurse is provided to facilitate and support the process, as is the presence of a doula, who is there before and after the birth, to help keep things running smoothly, and give the mom time to rest and heal, breastfeed, and bond with baby.
The government clearly invests in the family unit in this way, and the dividends are quite obvious.
They talk about being “gezellig”, which we as South Africans will recognise from the Afrikaans word denoting relaxation and enjoyment, and good cheer.
Michele tells me that education is not about learning, necessarily, but more about developing as a person, and regarded holistically.
Montessori schools are very popular, with 28 in Amsterdam alone, with the emphasis on natural self-development and independence. Children don’t spend their afternoons doing homework, and instead are out on their bicycles, or playing in the abundance of parks, and getting plenty of exercise and interaction. Report cards at school have a “dot” category instead of usual grading, indicating pathways of development, and the teaching approach is one of motivation, versus achievement.
Michele explains that discipline is not punishment-based, but about teaching socially appropriate behaviour, utilising the tools of negotiation and choices, by parents and teachers.
“Play is regarded as extremely important, and progress is child-led, not parent-pushed,” she says.
Michele is lithe and fit, and she clearly spends plenty of time outdoors exercising. Biking is one of the best ways to get around, which they do in all kinds of weather, and this inculcates a sense of independence and mobility with children.
“They learn more about determining conditions, identifying risks, and developing discernment about their surroundings and social skills,” she says.
Another reason Dutch children appear more relaxed, is because unlike their Western counterparts, they don’t succumb as much to the materialistic pressures, as there is a strong culture of recycling and using second-hand clothing.
I recall the mountain community I had my son in, and how we were gifted so many clothes, that I hardly had to buy any.
So, what contributes to true happiness in a child? They say:
For babies and young children, the gift of a predictable routine.
A home that is gezellig, and a safe haven.
Parents who are there for them, and offer them unconditional love.
Being given the tools with which to gradually learn independence and self-reliance.
Having plenty of time to play.
Being given enough rules and boundaries to feel safe.
This is uplifting, empowering reading for all parents, facing the same perennial questions.